November 8, 2021

I Am Begging You to Learn How Dictionaries Work

It’s a phenomenon as predictable as the tides: a dictionary adds new words or definitions, and then people grouse about those changes, either because they don’t like the new words and think that the dictionary is declaring them acceptable, or because they personally have never heard of those words before and therefore don’t see why they should be included. They often blend in grumpiness about the language supposedly declining or about kids these days. In both cases, of course, the real problem is that readers just don’t understand how dictionaries work.

Take this recent example from Maura Hohman at NBCLX, a site dedicated to “thought-provoking content” “about tech, the environment, politics, community, social issues, and current events.” It takes the familiar kids-these-days trope and gives it an unusual spin: the author is only thirty, but she feels old because she doesn’t recognize a few of the 455 words recently added to Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary. She starts off by calling herself an elder millennial, which I found cute as a millennial who just turned forty. I also found it odd from someone complaining about definitions. Definitions vary, of course, but elder or geriatric millennials are generally considered to have been born somewhere between something like 1980 and 1985 or 1981 and 1988. Even by the more generous definition, Hohman misses the cutoff by three years. Nevertheless, she says it was “a gut punch” to realize that she didn’t know a lot of these new words, which she calls “wrinkle-inducing additions.”

The first word she complains about, zero-day, means “of, relating to, or being a vulnerability (as in a computer or computer system) that is discovered and exploited (as by cybercriminals) before it is known to or addressed by the maker or vendor”. Weirdly, though, the definition she gives appears to be for a noun, not the adjective that Merriam-Webster enters. At any rate, Hohman imagines that this is a term used by children and that her unfamiliarity with it makes her old, when really it just means she doesn’t read much about device security. And that’s fine! But if she ever reads an article that mentions a zero-day vulnerability, now she’ll be able to look up that phrase in Merriam-Webster.

The next term, blank check company, was one that I don’t think I’d encountered before either. It’s defined as “a corporate shell set up by investors for the sole purpose of raising money through an initial public offering to acquire another business yet to be determined”. But rather than taking my unfamiliarity with the term as a sign that I’m old and out of touch, I took it as an opportunity to learn a new word. I’m still not totally sure I understand it, but it’s also not a term that’s really relevant to my interests. Again, that’s fine—but now it’s in the dictionary for anyone who might want to know what it means.

Deplatform is next on the list, and I’m honestly surprised that a journalist working in the year 2021 had never encountered this term before. It’s been everywhere for the last few years, and for what it’s worth, Merriam-Webster says the first known use was in 1998 (much older than I would have guessed), back when Hohman was probably in third grade. But Google Trends shows that there’s been a lot of interest in the term in the last few years, so it seems like it’s certainly worth including in the dictionary.

When she gets to oobleck (“a mixture of corn starch and water that behaves like a liquid when at rest and like a solid when pressure is applied”), Hohman says, “At this point, I knew Merriam-Webster was mocking everyone born before 2000.” Did she never make that corn-starch-and-water mix in elementary school? I certainly remember making it, probably before Hohman was born. I can’t remember now if we called it oobleck at the time, though I’m certainly familiar with the term, which is even older than I am—Merriam-Webster dates it in this use to 1973, putting it in the middle of Gen X rather than Gen Z. If anything, the question here isn’t why it’s in the dictionary but why it took so long to be included.

Last on the list is teraflop, which Hohman says is “a unit of measure for the calculating speed of a computer equal to one trillion.” But this definition doesn’t even make sense. A unit equal to a trillion is a trillion. It looks like she copied and pasted only the first line of the definition and missed an important part: it’s a unit “equal to one trillion floating-point operations per second.” It’s a rather technical term, so if you’re not a computer geek, I can see why you might be unfamiliar with it. But it seems strange for her to say that she’s never thought about the calculating speed of a computer. Aren’t we supposed to be the generation that grew up with computers? And, again, this term isn’t new—The Oxford English Dictionary dates it to 1984. (By comparison, gigaflop and megaflop are dated to 1976.)

Of course, the real problem with all of these complaints has nothing to do with Hohman’s age or even the fact that she wasn’t familiar with some of the new words in Merriam-Webster’s dictionary; it’s that she seems to think that if she doesn’t know all of these newly entered words, then the dictionary isn’t for her anymore. But that’s silly. A dictionary that contained only the words you already know wouldn’t be a very useful dictionary, would it?

When I was a kid, I’d often come across an unfamiliar word and ask my parents what it meant. Their answer was almost always the same: “Look it up.” So I’d pull out the big two-volume World Book Dictionary that came with our encyclopedia set, and I’d look it up. I learned a lot of words doing that. There will always be words that you’re not familiar with, either because they’re not from your generation or from your region, because they’re technical or obscure, or because you simply haven’t run across them before, which means that there will always be opportunities to learn something new in a dictionary. Because that’s the real job of a dictionary—not to wrinkle your face but to wrinkle your brain.

Dictionaries, Words 5 Replies to “I Am Begging You to Learn How Dictionaries Work”
Jonathon Owen
Jonathon Owen


5 thoughts on “I Am Begging You to Learn How Dictionaries Work

    Author’s gravatar

    Excellent. Or egg-salad as I’m in the habit of saying. Probably not something that needs to be added to any reference work though.

    See-ya later aggravator

    Author’s gravatar

    As someone who has been surrounded by words all my life, I well remember my parents’ enjoinder to “look it up”. And I still do, most days, and enjoy discovering new words. Some I forget, as they are not useful to me; others I remember. Nice piece which I will pass on!

    Author’s gravatar

    My (now) wife and I used to destress in grad school in the early 1990s by making and playing with oobleck (which is what we called it). It derives from a lesser-known Dr. Seuss book, “Bartholomew and the Oobleck” (1949).

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